Shabbos Part XI : G-d’s Individual Care (Edited Transcript)
This is part eleven in a series of discussions on Shabbat.
Adam and Eve were created last, on the sixth day of Creation, and yet logically, however, we would think G-d should have created them first: if people are the most important part – and indeed the very purpose – of Creation, why were they created last?
The mishnah (Sanhedrin 37a) gives a number of reasons for this. One reason is so that Adam and Eve would go straight into a mitzvah: they were created on the sixth day and went straight into Shabbat. Imagine the very first Shabbat of history, just the two of them in the whole big world, alone with G-d. This image of Adam and Eve alone in the world, and G-d giving them Shabbat to keep, epitomises and symbolises the individual care that G-d gives every single one of us.
G-d’s individual care for us
The Gemara (Avodah Zarah 11) talks about one of the most famous converts in Jewish history, a Roman by the name of Onkelos, who became a great Torah scholar and wrote one of the most authoritative translations of the Chumash from Hebrew into the vernacular of the time – Aramaic – known as Targum Onkelos. All translation is an interpretation; Onkelos’ translation was based on the oral tradition given at Mount Sinai.
Onkelos had a very high profile within the Roman Empire. The Caesar, who was his uncle, was upset that he had converted, and so, the Gemara relates, he sent a group of soldiers to bring Onkelos back to Rome. But Onkelos was a very charismatic person, and after speaking to him for a while, the soldiers were so impressed with what he had to say that they, too, converted. The Caesar then sent another group. The Gemara relates that when the second group came they told Onkelos not to talk with them because they didn’t want him to bring them to convert as well. They then took him on the journey back to Rome and while they were on the way Onkelos said, let me tell you something interesting: It’s the way of the world that a lower officer in the army will hold a torch for the one who is above him in rank, who in turn will hold it for the one above him, all the way up till the top of the army; and the head of the army holds the torch for the king. We would never find a king holding the torch for a private at the bottom of the army ranks. Yet we find that G-d held the Pillar of Fire and the Pillar of Cloud for the Jewish people, which guided and protected them on their journey through the desert. A mighty King – the King of all Kings – held the torch for His people, a Pillar of Fire at night and a Pillar of Cloud by day. These pillars symbolise the presence of G-d, Who was looking after His people. When the Roman officers heard this, they, too, converted.
The Caesar then sent another group of people to bring Onkelos back and they were given strict instructions not to talk to him at all. But on the way they passed a house with a mezuzah on the doorpost, and Onkelos asked them, what’s that? He then proceeded to explain the concept of mezuzah to them. He said: The way of the world is that the king dwells in his palace and his servants guard the palace on the outside. But here it is the reverse: the people are inside their homes and the King – G-d Himself, represented by the mezuzah – is guarding the house. When the Roman officers heard this, they too converted.
What moved the Roman officers so much that they converted?
The Alter of Slabodka, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, offers an explanation which ties to our discussion of Shabbat. He says that the Roman officers were moved by the fact that G-d thinks of us, that we are precious to Him and that He looks after us en masse as He did with the Pillar of Fire and the Pillar of Cloud, and also as individuals, represented by the mezuzah outside each and every home. G-d regards each household and the people therein as so important that He dwells right there at the doorway. The mezuzah symbolises the presence of G-d and that He cares about and protects the people inside. The Roman officers were so moved by G-d’s interest in us and that he cares about us as a society and as individuals.
Our direct, immediate and personal connection with G-d
We each have a personal relationship with G-d and we need to be aware that He is concerned about each one of us, as individuals. This is symbolised by Shabbat, specifically the very first Shabbat in history, when Adam and Eve were alone in a brand-new world created just for them. Every time we keep Shabbat, we remember this brand-new world that G-d created and continues to create every single day, for each one of us individually.
The Alter of Slabodka explains these ideas further by how the Sages of the Talmud instituted special blessings before enjoying anything from this world. For example, before eating an apple we say boreh pri ha’etz, “blessed is G-d Who created the fruit of the tree.” Rav Nosson Tzvi asks, why do we have to say the blessing every time we eat a fruit? Would it not be good enough to say it once in a lifetime? Why do we have to repeat the blessing every time we eat?
Furthermore, Rav Nosson Tzvi points out that the language of the blessing is boreh pri ha’etz, in the present tense. We are not just thanking G-d for having created fruit trees; we are thanking G-d for the fact that we are benefiting from this fruit now, as we are about to eat it. This is why we cannot just say one blessing for life. Every time we eat a fruit, we acknowledge that the apple was made just for us. We must realise that not only does G-d renew Creation all the time, He renews it for every single one of us, as individuals. This is why all of our blessings are in the present tense – boreh pri ha’etz, hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz, boreh pri hagafen. Whenever we say a blessing we acknowledge our personal relationship with G-d and that He renews the world for us every single day.
We see this as well with the blessings said in the morning after waking, which are all in the present tense: poke’ach ivrim, “Who opens the eyes of the blind”; zokef kefufim, “Who enables us to stand up straight”; roka ha’aretz al hamayim, “Who spreads the land over the waters” so that we can walk on solid earth. We should always have a sense that G-d is doing these miracles for us right here and now.
The Alter of Slabodka brings as well the first blessing of Kriat Shema, said in the Shabbat morning davening, which says: Ha’El hapote’ach bechol yom daltot sha’arei mizrach, “[We thank] G-d Who opens daily the doors of the gateways of the East” – referring to the rising of the sun – uvoke’a chalonei rakia, “and Who opens the windows of the Heavens”; motzi chama mimkoma, “He removes the sun from its place,” umeir la’olam kulo uleyoshvav, “and illuminates the entire world for all who dwell in it.” Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel says that when we recite this blessing, we should have a sense that the warmth of the sun shining on our faces is a personal gift from G-d. We find this also with the blessings we say for learning Torah. Every morning we say Hamelamed Torah le’amo Yisrael, thanking G-d “Who teaches Torah to His people,” and noten haTorah, “Who gives the Torah.” We say this in the present tense because He is giving it to us each and every single day.
These blessings awaken us to realise that we have a direct, immediate and personal connection with G-d. Every Shabbat we are reminded of this personal connection. The message of Shabbat is that we must not take anything for granted and that G-d is benevolent not just to the world in general but to each one of us specifically.
This is what the Roman converts found so moving. We talk about our faith in G-d and how awesome He is, but sometimes we forget about His faith in us and the fact that He gave us the world. This is what we should contemplate when we think about the very first Shabbat of history, when Adam and Eve were alone in the world. The whole world was created just for them, just as it is for us. This is why, as our Sages teach us, a person must say bishvili nivra ha’olam “the world was created for me.” Shabbat is a reminder of this; on Shabbat we feel G-d’s love and faith in us. During the week we are so busy and rushed, we can hardly keep up; we often take these things for granted and forget about G-d’s daily blessings. But once a week we stop, take a breath of fresh air and savour life’s blessings. We come to realise that these blessings are a special gift from G-d and are constantly renewed. This is why of all the mitzvot Shabbat is described by the Gemara (Shabbat 10b) as a matana, a gift. It’s not just a mitzvah but a gift – the ultimate gift – because it enables us to see that all of life is a gift and that we are receiving Hashem’s grace and blessing every single day.
Perhaps now we can understand why there is a mitzvah to enjoy good things – delicious food, nice clothes – on Shabbat. Shabbat is a day of savouring blessings, a day of enjoying the physically good things of the world as well as a day of deepening relationships with family and learning Torah. By slowing down and reconnecting with those around us and the simple blessings in life, we realise how fortunate we are and learn to take nothing for granted. Shabbat is the gateway to enjoying and being grateful for all the blessings we receive. When we appreciate the blessings we have, we are able to enjoy every aspect of life as a precious gift from Hashem.